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MATTEL ROLLS BACK INTO BRANDED ENTERTAINMENT

New DVD Offensive End-Runs Old Legal Restraints

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Mattel, an early pioneer of content integration, is now circumventing broadcast restrictions on children's fare with DVD and Web site-based branded entertainment.

Barbie's sales have been thinner than her waist lately, and Mattel's broader fashion doll business is just as puny. But what could do Barbie and pals more good than a supersized cheeseburger combo
The story touches on seemingly every theme of a tween girl's fantasy life

meal landed in my mailbox two weeks ago, addressed to my 8-year-old daughter, Leah, during her first week as a third grader.

23-minute animated feature

A DVD mailing for My Scene "Masquerade Madness" features a 23-minute animated feature with a sophisticated and hiply drawn Barbie, her exquisitely attired friends with names like Nolee, Delancey and Kenzie, and "The Boys," who entirely warrant such names as Hudson, Sutton and River. The DVD comes with a coupon for the new My Scene perfume and a mail-in offer for a free My Scene bag with doll purchase. Pre-show ads pitch a CD-ROM game and Myscene.com.

These junior soap-opera characters and the kiddie lifestyle brand they inhabit is Mattel's answer to MGA Entertainment's Bratz, the chunky upstarts who have been muscling Barbie off the playground. In a conference call with analysts last month, Mattel Chairman-CEO Robert Eckert acknowledged reinvigorating the fashion doll business is his biggest problem. Branded entertainment of the sort Mattel could only dream about in recent years appears to be the solution.

Mattel, pioneer content integrator

You see, once upon a time, more than a decade before Madison + Vine had a name, there lived a content integrator named Mattel that was so successful Congress passed a law to curb it.

In the 1980s, Mattel's workshops spawned He-Man and She-Ra, action figures that hit the market just ahead of the Saturday-morning cartoons that made them famous. G.I. Joe, a "Real American Hero" who'd seen more action during Vietnam than all swift-boat and Texas Air National Guard veterans combined, got his own TV gig, too.

Enraged consumer advocates responded by getting the Children's Television Act of 1990 passed, followed by more specific 1996 regulations by the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC required
The story touches on seemingly every theme of a tween girl's fantasy life

broadcasters to air three hours of "educational," or at least action-figure-free, children's programming. It didn't ban He-Man, but said such shows, if accompanied by ads for the starring action figures, constitute infomercials, not qualified children's programming. Broadcasters, not wishing to turn any more time over to low-rent kids' shows, gave content integration the boot.

Hits its target

The My Scene DVD is an artfully executed dodge of such barriers that hits its target, much like G.I. Joe, with overwhelming force.

My wife, upon finding it in the mail, quickly turned it over to Leah, who was already punching the three remotes required to engage the DVD player before I could intervene.

"Leah," I said earnestly, "you should know what you're watching, while it may look like a cartoon, is really advertising. What did Daddy teach you about ads?"

"That they're all lies?" she asked.

Critical evaluation?

"Umm, I'm sure what I meant was that you should always evaluate them critically," I said, capturing the nuance. "This is content integration. No claims. No lies. Just ... oh well, just watch it."

And she did, enraptured. This is no ordinary cartoon. For one thing, it's better than most she sees, particularly the drawing. It's not at all crassly commercial, except the characters are action figures and it was forged in the hellfire of consumer insight.%%PULLQUOTE_LEFT%%

The story touches seemingly every theme of a tween girl's fantasy life. The girls are creating costumes for themselves, their pets and boyfriends (it's a fine line between the latter two in this genre) for a masquerade fashion show to benefit an animal shelter. One action figure/girl's secret shame is that she's flunking math. Facing a looming test, she's also trying to design all the outfits. She feigns a crush so her girlfriends won't know one of the boys is tutoring her. But it takes her much-smarter girlfriend to save the day by showing that geometry is best mastered through fashion design.

Unlike any actual boy

The girls are all pretty and talented. The boys are all pretty vacant. They're polite, pouty, well-groomed, libido-free and unlike any actual boy my daughter will ever encounter.

Leah would surely be text-messaging her friends about this by now, were she, like Barbie and friends, so equipped. But her father is a troglodyte. No matter. A few days later, her best friend, who had been similarly targeted, spontaneously mentioned the My Scene DVD at school. Both love it, and all the merchandise it entails. Word of mouth so powerful cannot be contained.

Her innocence is fading fast. I have Mattel to thank.
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